01 May 2011

Book Review for EME 5054

Book Review: How Computer Games Help Children Learn

Bibliographic Heading:

Shaffer, D. W. (2006). How Computer Games Help Children Learn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

About the Author:

David Williamson Shaffer is an Associate Professor of Learning Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a game scientist at the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory (Shaffer 2006). Dr. Shaffer is a former teacher, curriculum developer, teacher trainer, and school technology specialist. He has taught grades 4-12 in the US and abroad, including 2 years working with the Asian Development Bank and the US Peace Corps in Nepal. Shaffer's MS and PhD are from the Media Laboratory at MIT, where his work focused on the development and evaluation of technology-supported learning environments. After completing doctoral studies he taught and conducted research at the Technology and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He developed curricula and online tools that help students understand the impact of technology on society, and created technology-based learning systems for new medical devices and procedures. His research interests include how computational media change the way people think and learn (Wisconsin Center 2008). Shaffer recently won a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award for his work on Alternate Routes to Technology and Science. His other recent awards include a Spencer Foundation National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellowship and an appointment as a research scientist at the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab (Innovate 2008).

Shaffer’s main reason for writing this book is thoroughly covered in the introduction by describing the critical problems in education today and how it will affect tomorrow. In essence, he believes that under our current education policies educators are preparing students for standardization instead of innovative careers. His solution to this crisis is education through epistemology, in other words, teaching students how to think, rather than teaching them a few facts. One of the ways he incorporates epistemology into education is through epistemic gaming. Shaffer wrote this book to thoroughly describe epistemic gaming and to offer epistemic gaming as a solution to “standardized thinking.”


In his introduction, Shaffer explains why he wrote this book. He points out that America’s competitive edge increasingly comes from how it can produce products, services, and technologies that are new, special, nonstandard – thus not easily reproduced across the globe by competitors. Shaffer predicts that in the very near future, the only good jobs left will be for people who can do innovative and creative work. “At its core, though, this is a crisis in education,” says Shaffer (p. 3). He claims that education today in the U.S. is preparing students for standardized jobs. “Our government and schools have made a noble effort to leave no child behind: to ensure, through standardized testing, that all children make adequate yearly progress. But we can’t “skill and drill” our way to innovation because standardized testing produces standardized skills,” (p.3). According to Shaffer, our standards-driven curricula are not preparing children to be innovators. “We are in danger of leaving all of our children far behind in the new global competition for innovative work,” says Shaffer (p.4). The upside is that the very same technologies that are making it possible to outsource jobs make it possible for students to prepare for innovative work. According to Shaffer, experts believed that the computer could teach students to solve problems, answer questions on tests, do better in school, learn by doing things that are meaningful and motivating, and in general, make it possible for students and teachers to think about learning in a new way (p. 4). Shaffer believes that the key to solving the current crisis in education will be to use the power of computer and video games to give all children access to experiences and interactions that build interest and understanding. “Computer and video games can change education because computers now make it possible to learn on a massive scale by doing the things that people do in the world outside school. They make it possible for students to learn to think in innovative and creative ways just as innovators in the real world learn to think creatively,” (p. 9). This book is about how computers and video games can help educators rebuild education for a high-tech world by thinking about learning in a new way.

When it comes to educators changing their positions, Shaffer vehemently argues that “computers create both the means and the necessity to fundamentally re-think what it means to know something – and thus what is worth learning and how educators teach it,” (p. 9). He suggests that teachers have to develop the tools to help young people learn epistemologies of creative innovation. One way to do this is through epistemic games: games that are fundamentally about learning to think in innovative ways. The view of learning this book presents emphasizes understanding about how people think and how educators can best help them learn to think more deeply, more compassionately, and more effectively about the problems and situations they will encounter in the world. Shaffer presents ideas about learning that takes two new and important directions: 1) about how learning can happen in games – primarily computer and video games; and 2) about what children need to prepare for the economic and social conditions that new technologies are creating, (p. 11).

This book looks at each element of innovative thinking – epistemology, knowledge, skills, values, and identity – in separate chapters. Each chapter also looks at a specific game: a game to provide concrete examples of the concepts discussed in each chapter and to provide images of what a new way of thinking about learning might look like. Shaffer specifically does this because “building a new educational system for the digital age is a big undertaking” and his hope is “to begin that process of change by providing an image of what we need to do and how we might do it,” (p. 13).

In chapter one, Shaffer describes the debating game in reference to epistemology. In short, this is a game where two teams debate a topic, in this case the Spanish American War, as judges rate the performance of each team (pro or con). The students must defend their position, and may use technology for research, but technology is not a requirement for the game. This game is considered epistemic because participants must think about issues the way historians do: to understand complex situations and develop and defend their own point of view on controversial issues. The Debating Game is about finding creative solutions to problems rather than looking for right and wrong answers. Shaffer makes a point that new technologies may not be required to build better educational games, but suggests looking at the next chapter to see how a computer game makes it possible for players to learn in “new and powerful” ways.

The second chapter relates knowledge to two games, SodaConstructor and Digital Zoo. Shaffer describes this chapter as “looking how computers change what it means to think and thus what it means to learn,” (p. 41). Students use SodaConstructor to design shapes (or creatures) according to the rules of gravity and motion. Fundamentally, this game helps students learn about physics and engineering. To play Digital Zoo, students join design teams where they get design specifications from a client who wants to develop prototypes, perhaps for an animated movie. To get their creatures to stand up, walk, fly, jump, or just plain withstand gravity, students work on a series of engineering design projects using SodaConstructor, leading to the construction of virtual objects and creatures. Players advance in Digital Zoo by producing designs for clients, but at each level, the client’s requirements become more complex. To meet those needs, players have to do more than simply interact with the computer; they have to learn to do what engineers do by thinking the way engineers think. Shaffer says, “In the process of making creatures that stand, walk, and even dance, players learned to use specialized language: technical terms and concepts from physics and engineering,” (p.58). He goes on to explain that “the specialized vocabulary that players develop in Digital Zoo is knowledge rather than mere jargon because it is not a set of unrelated terms or isolated facts,” (p. 59). This falls into the epistemic category since players are trying to think like engineers – in aspects of science and technology. Shaffer enforces the idea that knowledge and epistemology go hand in hand by arguing that “when children learn important concepts – and the words that go with them – to solve problems that are meaningful to them, the words go from empty jargon to seeing the world through the eyes of innovative professionals,” (p. 60). Shaffer continues by describing simulations since, in his opinion, “any game, at its core, is a simulation,” (p. 69). He argues that all games create an alternate universe – a microworld – that operates by particular rules and that players can explore. Epistemic games are based on simulations of interesting and important problems, where the framework for understanding what happens is based on the way that people who analyze and solve problems as innovative and creative thinkers.

In the third chapter, the author relates skills to epistemic games through a game called Escher’s World. In this game, players become graphic artists and create an exhibit of mathematical art in the style of M. C. Escher. The author uses the experiences of students with Escher’s World to demonstrate how learning to think like a professional means learning to act like one – and thus how the training of professionals provides a model for learning. One student uses criticism from her teachers and peers to expand her project. Another student uses the critiques and experiences from Escher’s World to expand her confidence and abilities to deal with other classes and situations. Shaffer points out that in both cases, the students learn the benefits of criticism and hence learn collaboration. He says this is important because “innovative professionals find creative solutions to complex problems by constantly working just beyond the boundary of what they can already do by themselves and they learn to do this originally in a professional practicum by working on problems and talking about them with peers and mentors,” (p. 100). For example, in Shaffer’s student experiences with Escher’s World, the knowledge they learned helped them build skills and new ways of thinking and acting like a professional which can bleed over into other areas of their life.

Shaffer ties values with a game called The Pandora Project in the fourth chapter. “This chapter focuses on the values of professional practices: on how thinking and working like a professional means caring about the things a professional cares about – and thus how learning to think like a professional means learning to value the things professionals think of as important, interesting, and meaningful,” (p. 105). In The Pandora Project, players become high-powered negotiators, deciding the fate (ethics) of a new biomedical breakthrough: transplanting organs from animals into humans. Shaffer demonstrates how this epistemic game motivated adolescents to develop the kind of skills, knowledge, and values they need to succeed. By using biology, international relations, and mediation, students must look at the potential transplantation in a variety of ways: 1) is it ethical to raise genetically altered animals, in a quarantined state, to harvest their organs; 2) by transplanting from animal to human, does this open the door to new viral epidemics; 3) is it ethical to say no to someone that desperately needs an organ transplant; and so on. This type of epistemic game helps players to learn to care about the kind of problems that doctors, lawyers, diplomats, and other innovative professionals face, and to develop the skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking that are used to solve such problems.

The fifth chapter, according to Shaffer, “is about what it means to be an innovative professional: how thinking and working like a professional means seeing oneself as a professional, and vice versa. It is about how professional training helps people learn to identify themselves as professionals, and why playing a game based on that process is so powerful for adolescents as they are making a developmental transition from childhood into the adult world,” (p. 135). Shaffer uses science.net which is an epistemic game where players become journalists, reporting on scientific and technological breakthroughs for an online newsmagazine. Shaffer demonstrates how skills, knowledge, values, epistemology and identity come together in the work of one group of innovative professionals. He goes on to suggest that “identity is central to a practicum, for example, part of learning to think like a journalist is that the student must think of himself or herself as a journalist,” (p. 150). In science.net, players learned about science by writing about science as reporters, therefore, they came to science through a journalistic perspective. Experiences, like this one, that transfer from one context to another are certainly the goal in the development of educational games, according to Shaffer. He states: “The premise of education is that it is possible for one experience to influence another in this general sense. Otherwise there is no education and no learning,’ (p. 157). Shaffer continues his argument by defining clearly the meaning of epistemic games: “an epistemic game is a game that deliberately creates the epistemic frame of a socially valued community by re-creating the process by which individuals develop the skills, knowledge, identities, values, and epistemology of that community,” (p. 164). Shaffer suggests that “the epistemic frame of a professional is built during a professional practicum, and epistemic games based on these practicum experiences can develop these innovative ways of thinking and working for students who otherwise would be memorizing facts for standardized tests,” (p. 165).

In chapter six, the final chapter, Shaffer discusses how epistemic games based on professional innovation can change the way educators teach. He discusses what is special about epistemic games, how they are different from ordinary commercial games, and how they are different from the usual school activities. Shaffer does this by comparing the game Urban Science and the game SimCity. The author doesn’t consider SimCity an epistemic game because players are not learning to think about how cities work from the perspective of any real professional. He suggests that SimCity is a “God Game” because players are not responsible for any social process of decision making within the virtual world (p. 171). In other words, they face consequence for their actions, but they are free to do whatever they want, however irrational, destructive, or unrealistic. Urban Science, on the other hand, is a game about urban ecology that actually does get players thinking the way professionals think about the complex and ill-defined problems that urban areas face. “Just like real planners, players have to balance the overall impact of their proposals against the costs and benefits – economic, social, and environmental – of alternative choices,” (p.173). Within this chapter, Shaffer continues to expand on his ideas to change education. He shows how the next steps toward education may be with epistemic games. The author reminds the reader that “the best hope for a better way of educating children for life in the digital age is for adults to think about learning in a new way: to think about helping young people develop the epistemic frames of professional innovation,” (p.1 92).

In summation, this is a book about thinking and learning and how we can use epistemic games to make it possible for all children to learn in ways that are deeply authentic, fulfilling, powerful, motivating, and, most of all, relevant. It is about using computer games to help students learn important ideas in ways that will be meaningful and useful in tomorrow’s world. This book shows how computer and video games – though games of a very special sort – can transform education to meet the challenge of innovation in a global economy. Students don’t have to wait until they start college, graduate school, or enter the workforce to begin thinking innovatively because these epistemic games teach players how to think creatively which helps them think like a professional. As Shaffer emphasizes, “we all can learn from and about games,” (p. 15).


Personally, anyone who sees the potential of learning through games or any educator who understands how crucial it is to prepare students for the high-tech, digital world of tomorrow should read this book. Shaffer makes a very valid point that the majority of jobs in the U.S. that require standardized skills can very easily be outsourced to other countries, (p. 1). This is true, a standardized problem can be solved anywhere. For example, a radiologist in India reads x-rays taken from a patient in Indiana. Even when someone gives their order at fast-food drive-thru, the person speaking to them may not be in the building, neighborhood, or even the country, as some places have the drive-thru monitored by people in another country. And these are just two of many examples of out-sourcing standardized jobs. What a scary prospect for people who will be looking for careers in the future! This really drives home the point that educators need to be innovative at all costs.

Shaffer makes a valid point about the importance of games. He declares that “developmental psychologists have known for nearly a century that children learn from playing games; therefore, play and exploration and experimentation matter,” (p. 6). He goes on to argue that “computers allow us to work with simulations of the world around us that let us play with reality by creating imaginary worlds,” (p. 7). These two statements validate his ideas that technology and gaming belong in the classroom. And when you combine the two, games can provide the framework in which a player can interact within a computer simulation. According to Shaffer’s arguments, the whole goal of education should be epistemology, getting students to learn how to think, rather than learning what to think. The epistemic games that Shaffer uses (i.e., science.net, Urban Science, Digital Zoo, and so on) suggest that technology and epistemic games could very well solve the current crisis in education. Shaffer enthusiastically supports his argument that epistemic gaming could be a key solution to the standardization of American education. According to the author “computers let us do more than we know how to do on our own – and thus let kids do things that innovative professionals do, and learn the ways of innovative thinking in the process,” (p. 73). Shaffer’s arguments are well-thought out and presented in a way that is hard to argue.

One criticism is his presentation of the idea of epistemology. Shaffer doesn’t really define the concept when he first presents the term. He says “epistemology is the study of what it means to know something,” (p. 9). Unfortunately, if the reader is not acquainted with the word prior to reading this section, the term epistemology may not be well understood until dozens of pages and examples later. Shaffer should have done a better job in explain this term since it is central to his arguments.

Another criticism of this book is Shaffer’s idea that epistemic games should be done in “third places.” The author introduces the term “third places” which refers to “places that are not home nor work, but places where people can go to “hang out” – to build community, share triumphs and losses, and in the process deal with issues, problems, and concerns that can’t be fully expressed within the confines of the family or the structures of a job,” (p. 181). Shafer suggests that epistemic games do not fit well with the culture of schools. “It is hard for teachers to spare the time from getting students ready for the next standardized test, and, not surprisingly, innovation is difficult to accomplish in forty-minute chunks of time, spread from room to room and subject to subject throughout the day,” says Shafer (p. 183). Shafer suggest that since epistemic games are “third places” that that is where they work best; therefore, children should play these games in other third places like clubs, after-school programs, summer camps, and community centers. “There, these games can develop according to their own intrinsic logic, to explore the highest potential of what learning might be – and what education could become – in the digital age. As a third space between formal instruction and free play, epistemic games can explore what can happen to games when the primary focus is on learning rather than on market forces in commercial game production or on the institutional imperatives of schools as they currently exist,” (p. 183). If Shaffer is so adamant about changing education, why wouldn’t he want to introduce his solution, epistemic games, into the source of education, that being schools. Shaffer works hard to suggest that the standardization of education is rampant in schools. Therefore, it would make sense to introduce innovative thinking through epistemic gaming directly to schools. Shaffer doesn’t justify his argument of only using epistemic gaming in “third places.”

Overall, this book gives hope to many parents and teachers who see today’s crisis in education. Shaffer opens the world of epistemic gaming to educators. The whole point of this book is for students to succeed, be happy, and have the ability to make the world a better place. What more could an educator ask for?


On a scale of one to five stars, where one is the least and five the greatest, I would rate this book at four and a half stars.


Innovate: Journal of Online Education. (2008). Board Member: Biographical Sketch. Retrieved October 27, 2008, from http://innovateonline.info/?view=person&id=5660.

Shaffer, D. W. (2006). How Computer Games Help Children Learn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wisconsin Center for Education Research. (2008). People Page. Retrieved October 27, 2008, from http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/people/staff.php?sid=1150.

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